Latin America & Caribbean

Venezuela crisis: How the political situation escalated

Juan Guaidó tries to gain access to the National Assembly building as National Guard members push him back Image copyright AFP
Image caption National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó is a thorn in the side of President Nicolás Maduro

In Venezuela, the government of President Nicolás Maduro and the opposition are engaged in a bitter power struggle.

Opposition lawmakers have been barred from standing for office, some have been arrested and others have gone into exile. The United Nations has accused the government of using a strategy of instilling fear in its population to retain power.

The South American country has been caught in a downward spiral for years with growing political discontent further fuelled by skyrocketing hyperinflation, power cuts and shortages of food and medicine.

Close to five million Venezuelans have left the country in recent years. But what exactly is behind the crisis rocking Venezuela?

Who's the president?

This would be an unusual question to ask in most countries, but in Venezuela many want to know exactly that after opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself acting president on 23 January 2019.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Some countries say Nicolás Maduro (L) is the legitimate president while others are backing Juan Guaidó

The move was a direct challenge to the power of President Maduro, who had been sworn in to a second six-year term in office just two weeks previously.

Not surprisingly, President Maduro did not take kindly to his rival's move, which he condemned as a ploy by the US to oust him.

He also said that he was the constitutional president and would remain so.

Despite attempts by Mr Guaidó to get the military to switch their allegiance to him, the armed forces have remained largely loyal to President Maduro, whose socialist party has also got a firm grip on the electoral body and the supreme court.

Why is the presidency disputed?

Nicolás Maduro was first elected in April 2013 after the death of his socialist mentor and predecessor in office, Hugo Chávez. At the time, he won by just 1.6 percentage points.

During his first term, the economy went into freefall and many Venezuelans blame him and his socialist government for the country's decline.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Nicolás Maduro was elected in 2013, after his mentor Hugo Chávez died

Mr Maduro was re-elected to a second six-year term in May 2018 in highly controversial elections, which most opposition parties boycotted.

Many candidates had been barred from running while others had been jailed or fled the country for fear of being imprisoned, and the opposition parties argued that the poll would be neither free nor fair.

Mr Maduro's re-election was not recognised by Venezuela's opposition-controlled National Assembly, which labelled Mr Maduro a "usurper" and argued that the presidency was vacant.

Citing articles in the constitution which in such cases call for the leader of the National Assembly to step in, Juan Guaidó declared himself acting president.

More than 50 countries recognised Mr Guaidó as the legitimate president, among them the US and many nations in Latin America. But Russia and China among others stood by President Maduro.

How much power does Mr Guaidó have?

Despite his broad international support, Mr Guaidó does not wield much power in practical terms.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Mr Guaidó is recognised by more than 50 countries but Mr Maduro remains in the presidential palace

The National Assembly was largely rendered powerless by the creation of the National Constituent Assembly in 2017, which is exclusively made up of government loyalists.

The National Assembly has continued to meet, but its decisions have been ignored by President Maduro in favour of those made by the National Constituent Assembly.

Some Venezuelans have become disillusioned by the failure of Mr Guaidó to dislodge Mr Maduro from power.

The opposition leader has been further weakened by a corruption scandal involving opposition politicians and by frequent infighting within opposition ranks.

On 5 January, his position as leader of the National Assembly was challenged when government lawmakers formed an alliance with a number of dissident opposition lawmakers to elect Luis Parra as Speaker for 2020.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Luis Parra claims he is the legitimate Speaker of the National Assembly

The election was held without a quorum and while Mr Guaidó and lawmakers loyal to him where prevented from entering the National Assembly building by a police cordon.

Mr Guaidó was later re-elected and sworn in by a majority of lawmakers at an alternative location but Mr Parra insists he is the legitimate Speaker.

A stand-off between the two factions at a session of the National Assembly was won by Mr Guaidó and the lawmakers loyal to him who pushed past police guarding the entrances to the National Assembly building.

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Media captionWatch as Juan Guaidó forces his way into Venezuela's parliament and is sworn in by torchlight

What could break the impasse?

The security forces continue to be seen as the key player in this crisis. They have so far remained loyal to Mr Maduro, who has rewarded them with frequent pay rises and put high-ranking military men in control of key posts and industries.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption President Maduro continues to have the backing of the armed forces

Talks between the government and the opposition held between May and August last year made no progress.

The US has imposed sweeping sanctions on Venezuela, including a freeze on all Venezuelan government assets in the US and a bar on transactions with his government.

However, the sanctions have failed to weaken Mr Maduro enough to drive him from office and some analysts argue that they offer the Maduro a convenient scapegoat to blame for the dire state of Venezuela's economy.

How did Venezuela get this bad?

Some of the problems go back a long time. However, it is President Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chávez who are the target of much of the current anger.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Many Venezuelans blame Nicolás Maduro and his government for the poor state of the country

When Mr Chávez became president in 1999, he promised, among other things, to drive down Venezuela's huge levels of inequality.

While he managed to reduce inequality during his time in power, some of the socialist polices he brought in backfired. Take price controls, for example, which were aimed at making basic goods more affordable to the poor by capping the price of flour, cooking oil and toiletries. The controls meant that many Venezuelan businesses stopped production because they no longer made a profit, eventually resulting in shortages.

A recent loosening of foreign currency controls originally brought in by President Chávez in 2003 has eased those shortages as traders can sell goods in dollars but that means they have again become largely unaffordable to the poor or those without access to the US currency.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Many merchants sell their goods for dollars rather than the local currency, the bolivar

Years of lack of investment in infrastructure further exacerbated by the more recent US sanctions on Venezuela's oil sector have crippled this key industry, which provides almost all of Venezuela's government revenue.

Venezuela has been in the grip of an economic crisis for years now with hyperinflation one of the main problems.

Business news website Bloomberg has been tracking the price of a cup of coffee in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, to show how prices have increased. It has measured an increase of 9,900% between 8 January 2019 and 9 January 2020.

How have Venezuelans reacted?

According to figures compiled by the United Nations, an estimated 4.8 million Venezuelans have left the country since the crisis started to bite in 2014.

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Media captionWhat drives someone to cross South America on foot?

However, Vice-President Delcy Rodríguez has disputed the figures, saying they are inflated by "enemy countries" trying to justify a military intervention.

The majority of those leaving have crossed into neighbouring Colombia, from where some move on to Ecuador, Peru and Chile. Others have gone south to Brazil.

The mass migration is one of the largest forced displacements in the western hemisphere.

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